By Gavin Hamilton
June 04, 2008

Euro 2008 is almost upon us, and the excitement is mounting. In England, however, you could be forgiven for thinking the tournament has been canceled.

England's absence from the festivities should deter nobody, though. It promises to be a wonderfully open competition. Of the 16 finalists, only Austria is not capable of reaching the final. Even Romania, which has drawn in the toughest group, could sneak through to the knockout stages, as the heavyweights from Italy, France and Holland take points off each other.

A personal wish is to see the Latin teams, Spain and Portugal, thrive with attacking play. That would be in contrast to four years ago in Portugal, when Greece, with its pragmatic approach engineered by German coach Otto Rehhagel, shocked the entire continent.

History tells us, however, that the final tends to be won by a team from a neighboring country or region. Think Denmark in Sweden in 1992, Holland in West Germany in '88, France in Belgium/Holland in '00. Even Greece in Portugal, a fellow Mediterranean country, in '04.

Such a theory puts Germany and Italy in pole position, though a surprise could come from Croatia or the Czech Republic, or even Russia, coached by that canny tournament sage, Guus Hiddink.

In many ways, the European Championship is harder to win than the World Cup. Of course, the World Cup features Brazil and Argentina and an extra round of knockout matches. But it's easier to come through the group stages of the World Cup than the Euros because virtually every group contains at least one weak team from Africa, Asia or Central America. In contrast, the European Championship groups are more evenly matched ­and harder as a result.

Italy was in one of the toughest groups at the '06 World Cup in Germany, pitted against the U.S., Czech Republic and Ghana. Yet at Euro '08, the Azzurri face even harder group opponents in Holland, France and Romania.

This European Championship should also offer a reminder of the beauty of international competition. After a Champions League final played in front of Russian oligarchs in Moscow, Euro '08 will offer soccer that a billionaire cannot buy. The 16 countries are more evenly matched than the small group of clubs who have come to dominate the Champions League.

That the games are being played in the center of Europe, where everybody will be comfortable with the climactic conditions, only adds to the belief that there is little to separate the teams. Another upset along the lines of Greece in '04, or Denmark in '92, is entirely possible. Who it will be, though, is anybody's guess.

Gavin Hamilton is the editor in chief of World Soccer Magazine.

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